Law School Case Brief
Phillips v. Fujitec Am., Inc. - 3 A.3d 324 (D.C. 2010)
Two related but distinct common law theories could potentially bar recovery in a personal injury action. First, if a plaintiff by her own negligence proximately contributed to the injury, she cannot recover. A second theory, commonly known as assumption of the risk, also bars recovery where a plaintiff voluntarily encounters a known risk. Though these two defenses may overlap, each requires a different analytical approach. Contributory negligence usually requires a determination of the reasonableness of the plaintiff's conduct, whereas assumption of risk focuses on the voluntariness of it. Crucially, assumption of the risk typically involves a "voluntary exposure to a reasonable risk," such as the risk incurred by attendees of spectator sports events.
Where a plaintiff voluntarily but unreasonably accepts a known risk created by a defendant's negligence, either contributory negligence or assumption of the risk could theoretically apply. However, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has chosen to analyze such "hybrids" as contributory negligence cases, because the focus in such cases is on the reasonableness of the plaintiff's conduct rather than the voluntariness of it.
Plaintiffs Donna and Stanley Philipps brought a negligence action against appellees Fujitec et al., alleging that they failed to properly maintain and safely operate an elevator which malfunctioned and caused their daughter's death. The decedent was visiting friends in a condominium building, and the decedent's friend, Snow, accompanied her as she left the building. The elevator slowed and was stuck between the seventh and the sixth floors. Snow successfully extricated himself from the elevator and insisted several times that the decedent should stay put as help was already on the way. The decedent tried to get out of the elevator, fell through the gap between the bottom of the elevator cab and the sixth floor landing and down the elevator shaft to her death. The trial court concluded that the decedent had assumed the risk of injury or death when she tried to leave the elevator.
Was the decedent contributorily negligent in extricating herself from the elevator notwithstanding the known risk presented by the huge gap between the elevator cab and the floor of the sixth floor?
The court affirmed the trial court's summary judgment on alternative grounds. The court concluded that the decedent was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. The decedent could not have been unaware that the gap below the elevator cab presented her with an unreasonable risk if she tried to exit. She knew that the gap was there and was told several times by Snow that it would be unsafe for her to climb down. Therefore, since the risk she voluntarily encountered was unreasonable, contributory negligence, rather than assumption of the risk, furnished the applicable analytical framework. The evidence was wholly one-sided in demonstrating that the decedent "appreciated" the risk of leaving the elevator cab, based on her awareness of the gap under the cab, and her insistence on getting out on her stomach after first trying to exit in a sitting position despite Snow's repeated assurances that help was on the way and that she should stay put. These observations all focus squarely on the unreasonableness of her decision to ignore the risk that leaving the elevator posed to her. In addition, the court held that the sudden emergency doctrine was inapplicable in the case as there was not a situation that required the decedent to act spontaneously without adequate opportunity for reflection.
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